Getting out of yourself

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I finally got around to reading Adrienne von Speyr, a promise I made to myself a few years ago. I’m so thankful I did. Von Speyr was a Swiss medical doctor, Christian mystic, author of several dozen works, and a well-known support to and confidant of Hans Urs Von Balthassar. She shares such wonderful and convicting insights that connect to where I am in my own faith journey. I’ll be sharing some of them from time to time. To being, here is a portion from Man Before God.

…[M]an’s nothingness represents a state of deficiency. Man lacks something. His sin has moved him away from the place where he should and could stand. He can, of course, fool himself into thinking that through sin he merely has strayed onto a bypath from which he still sees the right way. But deep down he knows better. He no longer sees the right way. He has become entangled in a thicket that his eye can no longer pierce in any way. Reflection alone cannot help him find the way out. He does not know how best to use his remaining strength. He needs grace for this, and therefore he must first of all submit. He must make himself so light that grace outweighs everything else in him. He must forget himself—this is the only true conclusion that follows from the recognition of his nothingness—in order to allow grace to stream into the empty space that he is.

As far as he is concerned, then, he is incapable of imitating the Christian hero. He cannot set off on his own to follow him. And nevertheless the image remains, the example with its radiant, inviting appeal. On the one side, he stands with his failure, his doubts, and with the need to make plans for his life that he knows he cannot sustain. On the other side stands the round deed of the apostolic man that shines upon him, challenges him, and fascinates him. Yet he realizes that he cannot leap over the intervening gulf by imitating from this side the deeds of a person who is on the other side. Rather he must get out of himself. The first comprehensive deed concerns the “I” itself. He must go out of himself; he must step outside of his own self. And this is a sort of annihilation, a forgetting and losing of himself, and a call for a new solitude. It is a bursting of his own center in order to free up space for God, who enters into this center and from there makes something new out of him. Who above all takes him into his service. This possession must become the unifying point in him, but he will not be able to occupy, fix, or experience this point himself. He is catapulted out of the limits of this nothingness, but he cannot trace this described trajectory, because he has surrendered and lost himself.

___________

In similar fashion, the one who prays can suddenly become uncertain before God, because finitude has been pulled away. But this is a healing uncertainty that brings knowledge. All that has contributed to his “I”—everything spatial, temporal, and psychological—has vanished and will not have any replacement. No other obstacles, no other spaces or times or character traits are put in its place. A genuine void has to be formed so that God’s fullness can pour into it. And yet this fullness is totally other than the void; it is not the counterpart of the contrary of the void, since God is not the contrary of the world, nor is fulfillment the contrary of the expectation. It is something “other”; it is the otherness of God, that overwhelming reality beyond all the creature hopes for and has the power to conceive. It is that absolutely unmistakable quality that upon arriving does not first have to prove that it is divine. This is the first characteristic of the divine life. When the Son of God becomes man, this is not a No coming out of a Yes, nor is No said to God so that Yes can be said to man. The Son does not disavow his divine nature by taking on his human nature. It is impossible to place either a plus or a minus sign before one or the other form of God—man, not-man. We can say only that in his humanity the fullness and his “otherness” become near and are revealed to believers. The Son is the Word of the Father and expresses this otherness of God in all that he is and does.

Fecisti nos ad te

Spiritual-Disciplines“You made us for yourself”
(Augustine, Confessions)

One concern that inspires my continued attempts at blogging is the integration of doctrine (the propositions theologians spend so much time on) and living, the beliefs we hold and how those beliefs transform our living. This is why I often ask a person to describe how he actually does this or that belief or doctrine, how the belief in question transforms his conscious intentions and choices, whether or not he prays differently because of the belief in question. From my perspective, this ‘doing’ just is the ‘meaning’ of the belief in question, for the meaning of our beliefs is the difference they make to our concrete living.

This is why I suggested vita ex nihilo as a reflection upon creatio ex nihilo. It’s one thing to adhere to the doctrine that God freely created the world “out of nothing.” It’s an entirely different thing to live that belief, to order and structure the interior life of the mind/heart and the habitual behavior of the body in ways that increasingly realize and demonstrate its truth. Only then does one truly believe, for a belief that cannot make a difference to one’s living isn’t a real difference in believing either. God will not judge us with respect to beliefs that possess no power to inform/transform life into Christlikeness.

There is a certain openness of the human spirit – viz., the structures of conscious thought, its capacity for self-relation, its aesthetic appetite, its teleological orientation, etc. – to God’s Spirit which makes it possible for belief to transform living. I recently encountered Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange’s The Three Ages of the Interior Life (2 vols – 1938/39), the burden of which is to provide a description, better yet a ‘map’, of the how spiritual formation occurs. Permit me to share here a portion of Part 1’s Ch. 2 (“The Interior Life and Intimate Conversation with God”) that touches upon the structure of interiority. He writes:

From this point of view, to give a clear idea of what the interior life should be, we shall do well to compare it with the intimate conversation that each of us has with himself. If one is faithful, this intimate conversation tends, under the influence of grace, to become elevated, to be transformed, and to become a conversation with God. This remark is elementary; but the most vital and profound truths are elementary truths about which we have thought for a long time, by which we have lived, and which finally become the object of almost continual contemplation.

Conversation with oneself
As soon as a man* ceases to be outwardly occupied, to talk with his fellow men, as soon as he is alone, even in the noisy streets of a great city, he begins to carry on a conversation with himself. If he is young, he often thinks of his future; if he is old, he thinks of the past and his happy or unhappy experience of life makes him usually judge persons and events very differently…

If a man is fundamentally egotistical, his intimate conversation with himself is inspired by sensuality or pride. He converses with himself about the object of his cupidity, of his envy; finding therein sadness and death, he tries to flee from himself, to live outside of himself, to divert himself in order to forget the emptiness and the nothingness of his life. In this intimate conversation of the egoist with himself there is a certain very inferior self-knowledge and a no less inferior self-love.

He is acquainted especially with the sensitive part of his soul, that part which is common to man and to the animal. Thus he has sensible joys, sensible sorrows, according as the weather is pleasant or unpleasant, as he wins money or loses it. He has desires and aversions of the same sensible order; and when he is opposed, he has moments of impatience and anger prompted by inordinate self-love. But the egoist knows little about the spiritual part of his soul, that which is common to the angel and to man.

Even if he believes in the spirituality of the soul and of the higher faculties, intellect and will, he does not live in this spiritual order. He does not, so to speak, know experimentally this higher part of himself and he does not love it sufficiently. If he knew it, he would find in it the image of God and he would begin to love himself, not in an egotistical manner for himself, but for God. His thoughts almost always fall back on what is inferior in him, and though he often shows intelligence and cleverness which may even become craftiness and cunning; his intellect, instead of rising, always inclines toward what is inferior to it. It is made to contemplate God, the supreme truth, and it often dallies in error, sometimes obstinately defending the error by every means. It has been said that, if life is not on a level with thought, thought ends by descending to the level of life. All declines, and one’s highest convictions gradually grow weaker.

The intimate conversation of the egoist with himself proceeds thus to death and is therefore not an interior life. His self-love leads him to wish to make himself the center of everything, to draw everything to himself, both persons and things. Since this is impossible, he frequently ends in disillusionment and disgust; he becomes unbearable to himself and to others, and ends by hating himself because he wished to love himself excessively. At times he ends by hating life because he desired too greatly what is inferior in it.

If a man who is not in the state of grace begins to seek goodness, his intimate conversation with himself is already quite different. He converses with himself, for example, about what is necessary to live becomingly and to support his family. This at times preoccupies him greatly; he feels his weakness and the need of placing his confidence no longer in himself alone, but in God.

…[T]his man may have Christian faith and hope, which subsist in us even after the loss of charity as long as we have not sinned mortally by incredulity, despair, or presumption. When this is so, this man’s intimate conversation with himself is occasionally illumined by the supernatural light of faith; now and then he thinks of eternal life and desires it, although this desire remains weak. He is sometimes led by a special inspiration to enter a church to pray.

Finally, if this man has at least attrition for his sins and receives absolution for them, he recovers the state of grace and charity, the love of God and neighbor. Thenceforth when he is alone, his intimate conversation with himself changes. He begins to love himself in a holy manner, not for himself but for God, and to love his own for God; he begins to understand that he must pardon his enemies and love them, and to wish eternal life for them as he does for himself. Often, however, the intimate conversation of a man in the state of grace continues to be tainted with egoism, self-love, sensuality, and pride. These sins are no longer mortal in him, they are venial; but if they are repeated, they incline him to fall into a serious sin, that is, to fall back into spiritual death. Should this happen, this man tends again to flee from himself because what he finds in himself is no longer life but death. Instead of making a salutary reflection on this subject, he may hurl himself back farther into death by casting himself into pleasure, into the satisfactions of sensuality or of pride.

In a man’s hours of solitude, this intimate conversation begins again in spite of everything, as if to prove to him that it cannot stop. He would like to interrupt it, yet he cannot do so. The center of the soul has an irrestrainable [sic] need which demands satisfaction. In reality, God alone can answer this need, and the only solution is straightway to take the road leading to Him. The soul must converse with someone other than itself. Why? Because it is not its own last end; because its end is the living God, and it cannot rest entirely except in Him. As St. Augustine puts it: “Our heart is restless, until it repose in Thee.”

sally06_interiorityInterior conversation with God
The interior life is precisely an elevation and a transformation of the intimate conversation that everyone has with himself as soon as it tends to become a conversation with God.

St. Paul says: “For what man knoweth the things of a man but the spirit of a man that is in him? So the things also that are of God no man knoweth, but the Spirit of God.” The Spirit of God progressively manifests to souls of good will what God desires of them and what He wishes to give them. May we receive with docility all that God wishes to give us! Our Lord says to those who seek Him: “Thou wouldst not seek Me if thou hadst not already found Me.”

This progressive manifestation of God to the soul that seeks Him is not unaccompanied by a struggle; the soul must free itself from the bonds which are the results of sin, and gradually there disappears what St. Paul calls “the old man” and there takes shape “the new man.”

He writes to the Romans: “I find then a law, that when I have a will to do good, evil is present with me. For I am delighted with the law of God, according to the inward man; but I see another law in my members, fighting against the law of my mind.”

What St. Paul calls “the inward man” is what is primary and most elevated in us: reason illumined by faith and the will, which should dominate the sensibility, common to man and animals.

St. Paul also says: “For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man is corrupted, yet the inward man is renewed day by day.” His spiritual youth is continually renewed, like that of the eagle, by the graces which he receives daily. This is so true that the priest who ascends the altar can always say, though he be ninety years old: “I will go in to the altar of God: to God who giveth joy to my youth.”

St. Paul insists on this thought in his epistle to the Colossians: “Lie not one to another: stripping yourselves of the old man with his deeds, and putting on the new, him who is renewed unto knowledge, according to the image of Him that created him, where there is neither Gentile nor Jew. . . nor barbarian nor Scythian, bond nor free. But Christ is all and in all.” The inward man is renewed unceasingly in the image of God, who does not grow old. The life of God is above the past, the present, and the future; it is measured by the single instant of immobile eternity. Likewise the risen Christ dies no more and possesses eternal youth. Now He vivifies us by ever new graces that He may render us like Himself. St. Paul wrote in a similar strain to the Ephesians: “For this cause I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. . . that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened by His Spirit with might unto the inward man, that Christ may dwell by faith in your hearts; that, being rooted and founded in charity, you may be able to comprehend with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth; to know also the charity of Christ, which surpasseth all knowledge, that you may be filled unto all the fullness of God.”

St. Paul clearly depicts in these lines the interior life in its depth, that life which tends constantly toward the contemplation of the mystery of God and lives by it in an increasingly closer union with Him. He wrote this letter not for some privileged souls alone, but to all the Christians of Ephesus as well as those of Corinth.

Furthermore, St. Paul adds: “Be renewed in the spirit of your mind: and put on the new man, who according to God is created in justice and holiness of truth…And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath delivered Himself for us, an oblation and a sacrifice to God for an odor of sweetness.” In the light of these inspired words, which recall all that Jesus promised us in the beatitudes and all that He gave us in dying for us, we can define the interior life as follows: It is a supernatural life which, by a true spirit of abnegation and prayer, makes us tend to union with God and leads us to it.

It implies one phase in which purification dominates, another of progressive illumination in view of union with God, as all tradition teaches, thus making a distinction between the purgative way of beginners, the illuminative way of proficients, and the unitive way of the perfect. The interior life thus becomes more and more a conversation with God, in which man gradually frees himself from egoism, self-love, sensuality, and pride, and in which, by frequent prayer, he asks the Lord for the ever new graces that he needs.

As a result, man begins to know experimentally no longer only the inferior part of his being, but also the highest part. Above all, he begins to know God in a vital manner; he begins to have experience of the things of God. Little by little the thought of his own ego, toward which he made everything converge, gives place to the habitual thought of God; and egotistical love of self and of what is less good in him also gives place progressively to the love of God and of souls in God. His interior conversation changes so much that St. Paul can say: “Our conversation is in heaven”…

Therefore the interior life is in a soul that is in the state of grace, especially a life of humility, abnegation, faith, hope, and charity, with the peace given by the progressive subordination of our feelings and wishes to the love of God, who will be the object of our beatitude. Hence, to have an interior life, an exceedingly active exterior apostolate does not suffice, nor does great theological knowledge. Nor is the latter necessary. A generous beginner, who already has a genuine spirit of abnegation and prayer, already possesses a true interior life which ought to continue developing.

In this interior conversation with God, which tends to become continual, the soul speaks by prayer, oratio, which is speech in its most excellent form. Such speech would exist if God had created only a single soul or one angel; for this creature, endowed with intellect and love, would speak with its Creator. Prayer takes the form now of petition, now of adoration and thanksgiving; it is always an elevation of the soul toward God. And God answers by recalling to our minds what has been said to us in the Gospel and what is useful for the sanctification of the present moment. Did not Christ say: “But the Paraclete, the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, He will teach you all things and bring all things to your mind, whatsoever I shall have said to you.”

Man thus becomes more and more the child of God; he recognizes more profoundly that God is his Father, and he even becomes more and more a little child in his relations with God. He understands what Christ meant when He told Nicodemus that a man must return to the bosom of God that he may be spiritually reborn, and each day more intimately so, by that spiritual birth which is a remote similitude of the eternal birth of the Word. The saints truly follow this way, and then between their souls and God is established that conversation which does not, so to speak, cease.

_________________

* If you’re sensitive to the exclusive use of male pronouns, I share your concern. But it’s not my text to edit.

Jump

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Man’s whole helplessness, indeed, his whole lack of future, yawns open – that is, unless he resolves to jump over his own abyss to God. God’s “thou” is so surpassingly powerful that man, no matter which way he moves, always remains in his clasp. A truce with God is out of the question. You have to stick it out right where you are until you have heard everything. God does not just go his way; he wants to be listened to now, and man has to be all ears. (Adrienne von Speyr)

Not Alone

600x600bb-85Anita and I have been enjoying History Channel’s Alone series. Just finished Season 3 recently. Each season documents ten new pre-approved survivalists who are dropped off in remote locations and left to survive on their own. Seasons 1 and 2 were held on Vancouver Island. Season 3 was in Patagonia, Argentina. Each contestant is given a few essential tools to take along, but all have to eat, drink and survive alone. No human contact. They’re given video equipment to set up and record their thoughts and activities.

It’s very interesting to observe the gradual effects of solitude upon each contestant. The quiet breaks and whittles them down, brings them face to face with themselves. If you want to call it quits, you tap out by calling a Sat Phone and you’re extracted. As people tap out, 10 becomes 9, then 7, then 4, etc. If you’re the last one standing, you win half a mill. Season 1’s winner lasted 56 days. Season 2’s made it to 66 days. Season 3’s winner won on day 87. Amazing show. Check it out!

That said, my thoughts on being alone brought to me thoughts of the Cross. On the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus said to his disciples (John 16.32-33):

A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me. I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.

It’s just because Jesus says this before the awful events that end with him on the Cross that its truth gets separated from the Cross and altogether forgotten when you get to the Cross. But the truth Christ here affirms should be included in what we have traditionally considered Jesus’ “Final sayings from the Cross,” for Jesus himself insists that what he here says embraces his suffering to come and so will be true when he hangs on the Cross. Think about it. We should learn to hear Jesus say from the Cross not only “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” but also “I am not alone; my Father is with me.”

Earlier we offered:

Besides explicitly declaring that his Father would be with him in his upcoming ordeal, Jesus’ point (v. 33) is that how God would be with him on the Cross would ground their own peace in upcoming afflictions as a consequence of his having overcome the world. That is, how the Father would be with Jesus in his suffering is how the Father is with us in ours.

Consider also –

Cursed is he who judged by us hangs on a tree
A cell made of diamonds?

Prepositional knowledge

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From him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever!”    (Rom 11.36)

To hear God in Scripture is to see oneself (James 1). To see oneself truly is to see God – to see God speaking me into existence, painting me into being. To know oneself is to know the truth about oneself, and that means experiencing oneself as given. Acknowledgment of this is all we truly give back to the God who gives us life and being – to know ourselves within the absolute priority of God’s initiative, of God before all things, in all things, beyond all things, “from whom and through whom and to whom are all things.” We possess ourselves, the purpose, meaning and fullness of our existence, prepositionally. Can “I” be something over and above this? Can “I” possess a truth that exceeds these prepositions? No, the gift I am given to be is the gift I am given to see, and that is to see and know myself as the truth and beauty of being “from,” “through,” and “to” God.

Rorschach redemption

87241fc01b5a5f0a8aef2974cc9bb8feMy good friend Dwayne shared some of his spiritual journey with me. In describing how he used to view God in conversation with the Bible to how he now views God, he compared his reading of Scripture to Rorschach’s inkblot test. The metaphor struck me so deeply, I wanted to share it.

Rorschach was a Swiss psychologist who developed the inkblot test used to study a person’s psychological health and emotional functionality. It’s not an objective test (like a multiple test question). It’s a projective test. It asks a subject to respond to ambiguous stimuli (those weird inkblot images). The mind fills in the gaps and resolves the ambiguity on its own and thus reveals itself in its responses. What you see reflects as much your own state of mind as it does what’s on the card. I don’t know how much they use the test nowadays. I took it years ago. Got the job, so I guess I passed.

As Dwayne describes it:

When I first started doing theology as a profession in 1998, I was pretty much a double predestination Calvinist. I believed that God as Creator had the complete right to eternally predestine some to eternal heaven or eternal hell. I thought of it as simple property rights. If God made us for himself and he wants to play with us like toy soldiers, so be it. Who are we to tell the Creator of all what to do? If he wants some of us to be the winning side and others to be the losing side, so be it. It made total sense to me from the Scriptures.

But as I look back, more than anything I see that I looked at the Scriptures like a Rorschach Blot. I saw my own theological and emotional despair more than what the Scriptures actually say. Back then, I pretty much hated myself, and hated everyone else, why paradoxically being codependent as hell. What I’ve learned in my personal journey is that many times we see the Bible as we are, not as it is.

I like the analogy – a lot. I wouldn’t say the Bible is pure ambiguity (like one of Rorschach’s inkblots). It is sufficiently specific of course (specific people, era, culture, message). Nonetheless, it is a mirror that reveals the reader. We are the text being read. It’s a thought shared by at least some biblical authors themselves. James 1.23-25:

Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.

I believe it was Barth who said something along the lines of ‘The Bible is not where we come to ask God our questions and have him provide the answers, but where God asks the questions and we must answer’. Scripture is where we come to be read by God, parsed by the Spirit, exegeted by the Logos. This is why though theology may be more than autobiography, it’s never less than autobiography. It’s also why, though “I” must read for myself, I must never read “alone.” We read the Scriptures together to call each other into being. This challenges me to examine my own reading. How does my reading of Scripture reveal my own sense of self, my fears, my angst and despair, my desires, etc.? Similarly, what do the readings of others say about them?

Not to books are we called,
Not to parchment, quill, and ink;
But to your flesh, voice, and blood,
Else deeper do we sink.
I read to be read by you,
That your Spirit me may parse;
Not for an errorless text,
Christlike persons are far more sparse.

Quick! Read this on slowing down!

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Please take the time to sit quietly with Andrew Sullivan’s recent article on sitting quietly. My family has been emailing our responses to each other. (Yes, I recognize the irony.) In addition, if you haven’t already seen Photographer Eric Pickersgill’s photographs on the isolation effect of cellphones, take time to check those out.

One of my sons-in-law emailed his first thoughts on Sullivan’s piece (which will make more sense if you’re read Sullivan’s article) which I’d like to share:

Thanks for sharing this. I’ve felt this way for years – just a vague fear of what social media and incessant connection is doing/will do to us. It’s why I postponed getting a smartphone for many years. And it’s why I quit Facebook a few years ago. Not to proselytize, but I’ve barely missed it at all.

Sullivan said:

“For if there is no dark night of the soul anymore that isn’t lit with the flicker of the screen, then there is no morning of hopefulness either.”

What I’ve found is that not only is it hard to find time away from the screens and little meaningless validations, but it’s increasingly hard to even want it – to want to spend some quiet time or to even ponder “enduring it.”

That’s dangerous.

I think you could put together a church/organization/group that basically takes all its direction and meaning from these thoughts from the article:

“The reason we live in a culture increasingly without faith is not because science has somehow disproved the unprovable, but because the white noise of secularism has removed the very stillness in which it might endure or be reborn…If the churches came to understand that the greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction, perhaps they might begin to appeal anew to a frazzled digital generation…It is the routine that gradually creates a space that lets your life breathe.”

Aren’t we all suffocating? I’ve found it’s virtually impossible to resist the urge to check notifications or texts or messages. But what isn’t impossible is turning off notifications (e.g., email while on vacation) or – better still – just ending my co-dependent, unhealthy, dysfunctional relationship with social media. I really don’t think it does anything positive for our lives. It’s just giving little dopamine boosts – just like a Percocet or a cigarette drag – and we find that we need more and more, we need it to go to sleep at night and get out of bed in the morning, that 11 “likes” aren’t enough anymore.

People say they can’t live without it. I think they’re almost right. I think they can’t live with it.